We have just spent three weeks in the UK in Bath and London. But I kept the blog going with the help of friends.
For years I have largely avoided the UK. When I first visited London in 1963, I was very conscious of social and economic class. It seemed quite unhealthy. Most people knew their place, particularly working people. In 1963 I found it quite a relief to go to Ireland that did not show the same obsession with class. That initial impression in 1963 was followed by the harshness, in my view of the Thatcher years.
I sensed in my recent holiday that things have changed, at least in the places I visited. There seemed a new social mobility and vibrancy, greater openness and certainly more multiculturalism. The black kids were lively and attractive. There were many East Europeans working in restaurants and shops and they were much more helpful than I recall my experiences of British customer service back in 1963. People on trains were much more courteous than I am used to in Sydney. In short, I have had to revise my views on the UK somewhat.
I enjoyed the National Gallery more than the Louvre. It was not as overpowering. The art was well selected and the gallery much less crowded. The British Library had a superb Magna Carta exhibition. The impact at the time of the Magna Carta has been exaggerated but it has had a substantial long-term influence around the world.
With the Greek crisis I was keen to see the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. I hadn’t realised that the British Library was formerly housed in the British Museum where Karl Marx had researched and studied in the Reading Room for years. But the Elgin marbles were my main interest. They were more remarkable and stunning than I expected. I stood in a vast hall with the Elgin or Parthenon marbles on every wall’. And in the next room there were Greek sculptures that I felt were even better than those in the Louvre. .
Not surprisingly, Gough Whitlam was a campaigner for the return of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles to Greece. The British Museum presents a threadbare argument that the ‘marbles’ in the British Museum ensures even better public access to them than would have been possible had they stayed in Athens! And to add to this threadbare defence of the British, the Museum asserted that they were obtained legally. That might be technically true, but in the early 19th Century when the marbles were removed, Athens was occupied by the Ottoman Turks.
The early 19th Century was a period of enormous art theft particularly by the British and the French. When considering Greek debt today perhaps the British and French might consider how much they really owe the countries of the Mediterranean that they plundered 200 years ago.
I have always been an admirer of the National Health Service and in London I found it as good as I had always believed it to be. As a university student in the 1950s, Nye Bevan had been a political hero of mine. The NHS has outlived and outperformed its self-interested critics. It was no surprise that the NHS was the prime feature at the opening ceremony of the recent London Olympics
In London the public transport system is in good shape and carries an enormous number of passengers each day. We could learn much from the London underground. But despite public transport, London still has major road traffic problems. It illustrated to me again that more and more express and toll roads will largely induce more traffic and will contribute little and at great cost to improving urban living. That is the experience of all major cities but the motor and construction lobbies want us to waste more and more money for their benefit. Good public transport must be associated with effective road-user charges that reflect the real cost, particularly in peak periods that we each impose on other users of the road system. Road tolls and road congestion taxes may be difficult politically but they are essential for urban living in big cities. More and more roads are not the answer.
Our UK visit was just a few weeks after the general election with the return of the Conservative Party to government with a narrow majority in its own right. The Conservative Party gained 36% of the vote but with the vagaries of first-past-the-post polling, it won 51% of the seats in the House of Commons. The real wipe-out was the Liberal Democrats across the country and the Scottish National Party taking 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland with massive swings. Scotland, had always voted overwhelmingly Labour until this election. The UK Independence Party, which campaigned against continued UK participation in the European Union polled 12% of the vote but only won one seat.
The Cameron Government may yet reap a bitter harvest from the last election. It has promised a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether the UK should exit the EU. This will give vent to the parochialism that I had hoped the UK had left behind. For the next two years, the issue of UK remaining or leaving the EU will be the focus of political attention and distract from many other key issues. If the UK decides to turn its back on Europe, I think the UK and Europe will be the losers.
Additionally, if the UK decides to exit the EU, that is likely to trigger a new referendum in Scotland and encourage a Yes vote for Scotland to leave the UK.
The Scots have little to thank David Cameron for. A major thrust of his recent election campaign, encouraged by his Australian advisers, was to warn the English that if they voted Labour, they could finish up with a Labour Party/Scottish coalition government. Cameron strongly played the anti-Scotland card in England. That deliberate and successful tactic meant that the Conservatives won well in England. The message was clear. Beware of the Scots.
History may yet reveal that the significance of the UK election was that the UK left the EU and that was followed by a breakup of the UK itself. The Scottish Labour Party is committed to the United Kingdom but the Scottish National Party seeks separation from the United Kingdom. Gordon Brown, a Scot and former UK Prime Minister has warned that as a result of Conservative tactics the United Kingdom may be on ‘life support’
In London there was understandable outrage over the deaths of over 30 UK tourists in Tunisia. In response and like Tony Abbott, David Cameron described IS as an ‘existential threat’. Clearly it is not. The existence of neither the UK nor Australia is threatened by IS. It is one thing for David Cameron and Tony Abbott to promote fear about the terrorism threat for political purposes. It is much harder to combat the causes of terrorism and IS in particular. Yet it is the policies of the UK, Australia, the US and others in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that have mainly served to worsen the terrorism threat. The history of Western aggression, exploitation and colonisation over centuries in the Middle East has played into the hands of extremists. Our policies have created anarchy in the region. We side with the despots like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Australia and the UK recruits to IS are transiting through Turkey. But we don’t want to offend Turkey by insisting that it closes these transit routes.
I was reminded again in the UK that we will not begin to contain IS unless we first accept that our policies in the region have been counter productive to our own security as well as the security of the people in the Middle East. We need to build strong partners in the region and that includes Iran.